On War in Fiction: War is a Necessity

I would guess that most of us who decide to take up our metaphorical pens these days to write fiction have probably never been in an actual war.  (That includes me, of course.)  It is interesting then that war and conflict are featured so prominently in so much fantasy and science fiction.  Don’t get me wrong; I think that’s a good thing.  I would much rather we have to stretch to understand that subject than that we know it too well, but it does present a problem:  How do we write believable stories that involve war when we really know so little about it?  The answer is (and hopefully will remain) that we must learn by proxy, from the experience of others.

In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring some themes gleaned from military history to illuminate points that I think many people misunderstand and thereby dispel the corresponding misconceptions about war.  I hope you find them useful!

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Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

–Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry

For many years now humanity has suffered from the gratifying delusion that one day, of our own accord, humans will end all war.  That is a wonderful goal to be sure…but, if history and human nature are any indication, it is complete moonshine.  History teaches us to abhor war, to put it off, to try to avoid it if at all possible.  But history also demonstrates that, at some point war is an inevitability because of human nature.  Nations will take the opportunity to enslave or otherwise exploit each other, just like individuals do.  Worse, each nation can take it in turns, since leadership comes and goes in each and every one of them.  If nations that still value freedom don’t stand up the oppressor–most likely through war–the alternatives can be far worse.  We can just think what life in Europe under the Nazi’s would have been like, if we need an example.  If you want your fictional worlds to be based on any sense of reality (granted, you may not), then the sooner you realize this the better.  All cultures, no matter how peace-loving, must also prepare for war.

The fantasy that says that war is simply a temporary condition that will one day be overcome is, in its more recent incarnations, a result of scientific idealism.  By refusing to acknowledge the reality of the Fall of humanity and the resulting sin nature, people inevitably ask, “Since we’re all basically good, why can’t we just get along?”  “IMAGINE!”  If you really don’t have a firm grasp of what humanity is, then you can easily believe that this dream can be realized.

Over the course of the Twentieth Century, there were many attempts to make that happen.  Communism in Russia and China was intended to “break the cycle of history,” thereby ending the eternal war between the haves and the have-nots and ushering in an era of world peace.  After forty million or so murders at the hands of Stalin and Mao and multiple “low intensity conflicts”, how is that working out for everyone?

Signing the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Right.

While there is nothing funny about communism, there is hardly anything to take seriously about the Kellog-Briand Pact, signed in 1928.  In it, the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and others offered “a frank renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy….”  Eleven years later, all of these countries were embroiled in World War II, the largest and most destructive war in history that culminated in the use of atomic weaponry!

Sadly, it is a testimony to the gullibility of the human race and a profound ignorance of history that these ideas are still floating around.  If the Twentieth Century should teach us anything, it is that socialism and utopianism are equally ridiculous ideas.  How I wish that weren’t true!

War, it seems, is a universal reality.  Nations distinguish themselves in how they prepare for war and how they pursue it when it comes.  Generally speaking, good nations are the ones that don’t use war to force their whims onto others.  Bad ones conquer with the sword what they cannot through debate and discussion.  Wise politicians and generals prepare for future wars so thoroughly that, though they will hopefully never need to fight them, when they do, the wars are insured to be as short and clean as possible.  Ignorant leaders leave their peoples open to invasion, destruction, and defeat.  The middle ground between the two is tenuous at best.

Of course, I am speaking of human nature, and we are also talking about fantasy and science fiction.  Why not simply introduce an inhuman species that operates on a different level?  That would be fine…but then you risk the rest of us no identifying with or enjoying your creation.  Readers tend to connect most strongly with characters and cultures they can see some of themselves in.  If your cultures are truly inhuman, you risk losing that connection.  If your stories have humans in them–or if you want humans to identify with them, you will have no choice but to take war and conflict into account.

There are plenty of examples of how to do this, ranging from the “Star” franchises in science fiction to fantasy classics like the Lord of the Rings.  Since war is a fact of life–as much as we might abhor it–let’s use our imaginations to treat it right, to set up examples in our minds of what it really means to be strong, heroic, and fair as opposed to simple naivete.   In doing so, we can hope to influence thousands of people toward those ideals when the real events occur.

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 Next Week:  Rachel returns on Fridays!  I’ll be back in April 5 with more thoughts on war and fiction. 

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on February 22, 2013, in Brian Melton, Fantasy, History, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, War, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Interesting angle you took, there- I wasn’t expecting you to bring in the examples of socialism and communism, but that seems to be where everyone wants to go when they think of transcendent beings in their stories. Science fiction writers started doing this a lot in the 60s and 70s with alien cultures, and its still a tendency today. On the other hand, writers that focus more on evolutionary development write alien cultures with survival as their highest goal, and that tends to manifest itself in cultures that approach war rather practically. Funny how that works out.

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